BEST OF THE WEB: It’s not clear Google can stop Glass privacy breaches

Even before Google Glass is released, concerns are being raised about the privacy implications of wearable tech devices.

For its part, the internet and smartphone giant has worked hard to hose down fears of apps automatically using facial recognition technology to breach people’s privacy on a large scale.

However, as Cyrus Farivar at Ars Technica points out, young tech entrepreneurs such as Stephen Balaban, the 23-year-old founder of Silicon valley tech start-up Lambda Labs, are already hard at work creating facial recognition software for the yet to be released device.

Once Google releases its latest invention, will it be able to keep the privacy genie in the bottle? After meeting Balaban, Farivar is not entirely sure:

Regardless of what happens with Lambda Labs’ facial recognition API in the near-term, it may only be a matter of time before cyborgs (pardon the hyperbole, but the T-101 could certainly recognize faces) will be walking among us.

“I think this is a predictable early step in the trajectory that mass-based, peer-to-peer, real-time face recognition may likely follow over time: initially, apps that use facial recognition merely as a mnemonic tool for people you have already met,” Alessandro Acquisti, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert in facial recognition technology, told Ars.

With augmented reality and wearable tech set to become a part of everyday life over the coming years, it’s worth keeping an eye to the privacy implications of the visionaries working with this new technology.

The other side of the Prism

Another ongoing privacy concern for users of the internet, highlighted this week, is how much personal information is being shared by internet companies with governments, and under what circumstances.

On this front, a piece of investigative journalism has uncovered a US government program that has set the tech industry, including some of its biggest companies, abuzz.

The story was first broken late last week in an investigative piece by Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill in The Guardian. The program was first uncovered after a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation leaked to the press:

The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.

The Guardian has verified the authenticity of the document, a 41-slide PowerPoint presentation – classified as top secret with no distribution to foreign allies – which was apparently used to train intelligence operatives on the capabilities of the program. The document claims “collection directly from the servers” of major US service providers.

The program has significant privacy implications for anyone using any online service, according to a number of leading civil liberties groups including the American Civil Liberties Union:

Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy, said that it was astonishing the NSA would even ask technology companies to grant direct access to user data.

“It’s shocking enough just that the NSA is asking companies to do this,” he said. “The NSA is part of the military. The military has been granted unprecedented access to civilian communications.

Since the article was first published, a number of tech giants including Microsoft, Google, Mozilla and Facebook have distanced themselves from the program, issuing statements calling for the US government to be more transparent with how often it seeks to gather information for intelligence purposes.

It seems the truth can be murky on the far end of a prism.

Gamers “think different”

For many years, Apple’s advertising insisted its customers “think different”. Now new research from Duke University in the US could show that the phrase might be more than a hollow marketing slogan.

According to Duke Today, a recent experiment tested the visual perception and memory skills of regular players of action games against those of non-gamers – with surprising results:

Each participant was run though a visual sensory memory task that flashed a circular arrangement of eight letters for just one-tenth of a second. After a delay ranging from 13 milliseconds to 2.5 seconds, an arrow appeared, pointing to one spot on the circle where a letter had been. Participants were asked to identify which letter had been in that spot.

At every time interval, intensive players of action video games outperformed non-gamers in recalling the letter.

While there are several possible reasons for the results, it appears action games train players for rapid decision-making:

The researchers examined three possible reasons for the gamers’ apparently superior ability to make probabilistic inferences. Either they see better, they retain visual memory longer or they’ve improved their decision-making.

Looking at these results, [Assistant Professor Greg] Applebaum said, it appears that prolonged memory retention isn’t the reason. But the other two factors might both be in play – it is possible that the gamers see more immediately, and they are better able make better correct decisions from the information they have available.

It seems the next time you want to hire a staff member who can make good decisions under pressure, it might be worthwhile asking them what their favourite PlayStation game is.

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